Cross Infection

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 5, 2013

What is Cross Infection?

Cross infection is the transfer of harmful microorganisms. Bacteria and viruses are among the most common. The spread of infections can occur between people, pieces of equipment, or within the body. These infections can cause many complications. Medical professionals work diligently to ensure equipment safety and a clean environment.

Types of Cross Infection

Cross infection can stem from:

  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • parasites
  • viruses

Causes of Cross Infection

Cross infections are caused by:

  • unsterilized medical equipment
  • bacteria from coughing and sneezing
  • the transmission of viruses through human contact
  • touching contaminated objects
  • dirty bedding

Media coverage has raised concerns over the cross infection of “superbugs” in hospitals. An example is the Mycobacterium abscessus (Medline Plus). Infections can be spread in any setting. Bacteria and viruses may be numerous in outpatient medical facilities and in public settings. Examples include schools, banks, stores, and government buildings.

While the risk for infection is greater when undergoing a medical procedure, cross infection can also occur within the body. In some cases, an infection on one part of the body can spread to another. An example is a respiratory infection spreading to the ears and eyes.

Symptoms of Cross Infection

The exact symptoms of cross infection depend on the source. For example, an infection caused by a catheter can result in a UTI. The symptoms include pain in the kidneys, abdomen, and groin. Infections spread through surgery may cause redness, swelling, and pus at the operation site. One of the first telling signs of a cross infection is a fever. This is usually the body’s first course of action to help get rid of an infection.

Diagnosing Cross Infection

Doctors may use a combination of methods to diagnose cross infection. These include:

  • physical exams
  • blood tests
  • culture tests
  • urine tests
  • x-rays
  • health history review

Treating Cross Infection

Treating cross infection depends on the condition. Antibiotics are often used for bacterial infections. These medicines don’t treat viruses. The problem with antibiotics is that bacteria can learn to adapt and potentially become resistant to medications overtime. This not only leads to individual resistance, but can lead to the evolution of “superbugs.” These are strains of bacteria immune to antibiotics, which make the risk for related complications high.

Prescription anti-viral drugs are used to treat specific types of viruses. Anti-fungal medications can be used to treat fungal infections, either in topical or oral form. Parasites transferred through cross infection may be treated with antibiotics as well as dietary changes.

Cross Infection Complications

Untreated bacterial and viral infections can lead to:

  • diarrhea
  • pneumonia
  • meningitis
  • death

The risk for life-threatening complications during medical procedures increases when cross infection is present. It is important to call a physician immediately if any symptoms of infection are suspected. The earlier treatment starts, the more probable a positive outcome will be.

Preventing Cross Infection

Cross infection is best treated at the source. Medical professionals use techniques to help prevent infections at facilities, as well as during and after surgical procedures. Aseptic technique is a common process used to properly sterilize equipment so that harmful microorganisms can’t spread from patient to patient.

Hospitals and other health care settings all have specific means to prevent infection. Before undergoing a procedure, a patient might consider checking the facility in advance. They can also ask about which infection preventative measures are used.

Many public institutions have strict rules that help reduce cross infection. Schools may not allow students to attend classes while sick. Some companies send employees home if they show signs of the flu. While this can seem like a burden, such measures can significantly reduce the chances of cross infection. Frequent and thorough washing of the hands also reduces risk of cross infection.

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